Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 30, 2008

A book review – Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald


In a previous post, when half way through reading Auserlitz by W.G. Sebald, I wondered whether this book was a biography, an autobiography or a pure fiction and suggested that it most likely was a mixture.  It is not autobiographical, however much it reads like it: Sebald  was born at the very end of the second world war, while Austerlitz was sent to England on a children’s transport in 1939.  Sebad studied German language and literature in Switzerland and Manchester.

The book is beautifully written, highly literate, and it is only after page 200 or so that we suddenly realise where it is going, what it is really all about.  We could of course have guessed it: Austelitz is not really a Welsh name and all through the first chapters there is the mystery about who he really is, brought up by foster parents in the little country town of Bale in Wale ‘in the house of a Calvinist preacher and former missionary called Emyr Elias who was married o a timid natured English woman’ and he has ‘never liked looking back at he time I spent in that unhappy home.’

Austerlitz has suppressed all memory of his previous life and it is only when he wanders into the disused Ladies’ Waiting room of Liverpool Street Station, when he is in his sixties, that he realises he has been there before, that is where was met by the preacher and his wife.  Then his search begins, taking him back to Praque and his roots.

The story unfolds behind the layers of stories about places and people, narrated to the mysterious first person character who in the second half of the 1960s ‘travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons, which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.’  This is part of the opening sentence of the book and the reason for wondering who this book is about.   He meets Austerlitz for the first time in the Salle des pas perdus in Antwerp central station and before relating this meeting with Austerlitz there is an elaborate account of Antwerp Station, which again leads one astray as to what this book is about.  The story is interspersed with such descriptions of places in Belgium and England and Prague, and the book has black and white photographs dotted throughout, which enforce the suggestion that this is a biography or an autobiography.  In fact, what we have here is a lovely approach to a novel, a kind of meditation on life on being a European, on trying to find back what has been lost and the inevitability of that loss through the passage of time. 

I have loved reading this book – there is no solution, no ‘happy ending’, just life in all its tragedy and because of that the story is heartbreaking, delivered in beautiful writing that is a wonderful mixture of travelogue, biography and fiction with an undertone of serious philosophical discussions.

I will definitely read more Sebald – it is a style of writing that I feel hugely drawn to.

Right, I’m now going to get The Rings of Saturn, which actually is (partly?) about Norfolk. 






  1. I read Austerlitz a couple of years ago and I had very mixed feelings about it. The first part did not grab me at all and I was ready to throw the book in a corner and give up. Then at one point I was sucked in (I am not sure anymore at what point it was, but I think it was at about the point you described set in Liverpool Street Station) and I couldn’t put the book down anymore. When I closed the last page, I very strongly felt like I had been underwater and was coming up for air. A somewhat unnerving feeling that I’d never felt that way before. I absolutely loved the second part of the book. But I am not sure that’s enough to make me want to read more Sebald. Not yet, at least.

  2. This does sound interesting. I’ve got Rings of Saturn in my TBR pile but haven’t got to it just yet!

  3. Wonderful book. But I think it is entirely fiction, and that The Rings of Saturn (ostensibly a travelogue) is more fictional than it lets on. But the photographs, the personal touches and the confessional first-person tone make it seem frighteningly real.

    This was Sebald’s art. His project was to remember and confront the repressed traumas of history — not by “reimagining” them like Hollywood does, but by exploring their lasting traces and their effects on those alive today.

  4. Jonathan: yes, I agree, it is purely fictional – I’m now going to your site to read your review of the Rings of Saturn. I started reading it and somehow was sidetracked by other books. I think Sebald is a wonderful writer and your analysis of his intention ‘to confront repressed traumas of history by exploring their lasting traces and effects on those alive today (us)’ resonates and is probably the reason why reading him feels so much like a recognition of things that one recognises but so far have been unable to put in words. Thanks for popping by.

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